What does loss mean during a pandemic? Many may argue that loss is loss — pandemic or no pandemic. But I do find the pandemic has changed the way we react to loss or the prospect of loss. Either we see death as yet another number in a long list of people we have already lost in the past year, or we feel trapped in our inability to participate in the grief the way we once did.
There were at least two occasions last week when I felt compelled to question my changing sense of an ending. On a regular weekday, my husband informed me his aunt had passed away. “Which one?” I asked, given that he has a big family and I have met most members only once. “My eldest uncle’s wife. Remember, you met her when you went to Kerala?” That was eight years ago when we tied the knot and I remember being greeted most warmly. I knew my husband was hurting, but I remained silent… not because I was unaffected but because I didn’t possess words that could soothe him.
Two days later, my best friend called. Her mother, who was being treated for cancer, was put on ventilator and she’d been steadily deteriorating. Again, I was running short of words to console her. I oscillated between keeping hope alive and preparing my friend for a life in which her mother would be absent.
My thoughts transported to my childhood when her mother would give the best possible advice on life. She was an intrinsic part of my life during a time that I have come to value over the years. To know that there was a chance that I may never meet her was frightening. But I wasn’t prepared to cry. “She may not survive this,” I told my husband. “Understand that you cannot do anything. Just be by her side,” he said.
In the task of giving perspective in the face of imminent loss, my husband fared much better than I did. He’d never met my best friend’s mother, but there was considered pragmatism in his advice. It resonated more than my silence. His words also came from understanding what loss really means — something I struggle to come to terms with, even though I have been dealing with it for the past 18 months.
Every time I hear news of a loved one’s death, I am silent. Whether it be aunts who raised me or the cousin I grew up with, I mostly bade a tearless farewell to my loved ones on Zoom at a time when air travel was still not allowed. This made me wonder if tangibility can enable closure. That small act of touching the deceased’s feet prior to cremation, saying prayers with your family, or just being physically present to cry along with others — do these things actually help us process loss?
In the absence of these personal rituals, I find that loss has transported us to a limbo where we conduct our daily lives with clockwork precision while transferring grief to the subconscious. The pandemic may not have desensitised us to death; it has only ensured that we live with a constant sense of loss.